Ben Pipestem Is Teaching Our Way of Life Through Language, Connection, and Understanding

“I empty my cup before I approach somebody to learn.”

– Ben Pipestem

 

Benedict Pipestem, (Bush Cree), (Gumistiyi) of Tsuut’ina Nation, is a 29-year-old Tsuut’ina (Sarcee) language teacher, storyteller, performer, musician, and writer. Ben found his calling on the stage early in his life while working alongside his aunt, Aroha Crowchild. At 18 years old, Ben performed in his first play, Indian Interrupted, alongside award-winning Cree actor and Artistic Director and founder of Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society, Michelle Thrush. At 21 years old, Ben had transitioned from the stage to teaching the Tsuut’ina language at Tsuut’ina Elementary, Middle, and High School – where he educated students from kindergarten to grade 12. Ben has also taught adult classes. For Ben, the origin of storytelling lies in the knowledge of our languages. “To me, language teaching is storytelling,” Ben says. “You can’t have language without stories – that’s the purpose of language.” Although he had shifted his creative focus away from performance for a time, Ben was urged to join the Istotsi Workshop Series by his friend Alanna Onespot – an artist who also worked on the Istotsi project. The opportunity to create a piece for the project was a magical, inspiring experience for Ben. “Before coming into this, I was going through a lot – I had lost a lot,” Ben says. “I was coming out of a depression, and I was able to come out of the shell that I put myself in – it was because of Istotsi and being part of this project. It was awesome because the art of being able to express yourself – being able to do all that – I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity.” For his Istotsi site, Ben chose the waterside of Kootsisáw (Elbow River) by the Repsol Centre. Ben’s Istotsi piece about the Trickster, Cho ts'i (The Thunderbird), and Tastłini (water spirit) was shaped by a story handed down to him by an Elder about the Elbow Falls. “The water spirit, Tastłini, is what (the Elder) referred to as the river itself,” Ben says. “That’s probably the most significant thing I’ve learned from this experience – the spirit’s name and being able to (feel) connected that way. Learning (proper) names are important (because) we’ve (learned) through the English mind. It’s hard to understand what water means without understanding that it also has a spirit.”

Ben Pipestem stands near the edge of the Elbow river during the filming of Istotsi.

The stories are connected to the land and have flown down Kootsisáw (Elbow River) along with generations of our people for thousands of years – where they will continue for thousands more. “It goes back to creation,” Ben says. “The creation story has always been with us, part of this land, and those rivers have always been part of our individual stories. (Kootsisáw) runs right through the Tsuut’ina Reserve, so there are lots of stories that go with the river – I’m one of those stories.” Ben’s deep connection with the river is reflective of how Tsuut’ina and Blackfoot Peoples view our world and the interconnected reality that we all share. One of the perspectives he wants people to take away from his Istotsi workshop is an entire way of seeing the world as all Indigenous Peoples once did. “I honestly think that we can go back to (that way of thinking) at some point,” he says. “As (Indigenous) People, we understood the connection we had – it’s literally in our languages. My (intention) is to get there through storytelling. That was one of the reasons why I took the Istotsi project – to have the opportunity to start storytelling again and share our worldview the way (Indigenous) People used to see it.” As someone who genuinely cares about diverse perspectives, Ben has made it his mission to understand distinct cultures. He absorbs as much knowledge about unique ethnic groups as he can – through film, theatre, and literature – so he can pay his respects when meeting new people. Ben hopes non-Indigenous people will do the same for our cultures. “I’d like people to ask more because I want people to know more about our culture,” he says. “If the world was going to take away anything from our projects or Indigenous work, it is to understand us – and hopefully, we can start teaching our way of life again.”

 
Istotsi - The Land We Live On was made possible in part by the RBC Foundation


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