Gikinoo’amaagoowin

  • Armand Garnet Ruffo
    Thunderbird Poems. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Dorothy Dora Whipple, Wendy Makoons Geniusz (Editor), Brendan Fairbanks (Editor) and Annmarie Geniusz (Illustrator)
    Chi-mewinzha: Ojibwe Stories from Leech Lake. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Darrell Dennis
    Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth about Lies about Indians. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • George Copway
    The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

These books afford readers an education—gikinoo’amaagoowin—in things Ojibwe, past and present. The authors’ voices are memorable for how they invite readers to listen and learn. Dorothy Dora Whipple is an elder and a fluent Ojibwe speaker from Leech Lake, Minnesota. Chi-mewinzha, a collection of her own stories printed on facing pages in Ojibwe and English, forms part of her lifelong work in Ojibwe language revitalization projects. Transcribed from speech and illustrated with line drawings that Whipple hopes will inspire children to learn Ojibwe, her stories convey the pace and cadence of an oral storyteller and teacher.

In “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,” printed in two versions, the narrator reminds her audience to attend to seasonal tasks. In the spring, “when the leaves are coming out,” the people “used to go after birch bark. It’s only for a little while that the birch bark can be peeled off. . . . [J]ust after the spring when it starts to be sunny and hot, that’s when it peels. You can’t take that birch bark all summer because it won’t peel.” Version two reviews the rewards for labour: “It’s spring. . . . That’s the time the Indians get the . . . birch bark. . . . We made birdhouses and little birch baskets and sold them.” A less instructive but humorous story recalls white people wearing wigs and painted to look like “Indians” so they could steal rice from the Ojibwe. A melancholy tale laments how few people nowadays use tobacco in sacred ways, but instead merely smoke it. This entertaining book has a variety of potential uses. The narratives teach readers about Ojibwe lifeways, beliefs, and cultural perspectives. Linguists will appreciate how the tales preserve the spoken language, and the self-taught student of Ojibwe will value the glossary matching Ojibwe with English words and phrases.

While Whipple’s voice draws us back into an older world to be preserved, stand-up comedian Darrell Dennis’s anchors us in the present one that needs repair. Refreshingly irreverent, Peace Pipe Dreams tackles politically charged issues such as terms du jour for referring to Native people and to particular tribes: Native American or America Indian? Native? Indian? First Nations or Native Canadian? Ojibwe or Anishinaabe? Ironically, while visiting the “Indian Friendship Centre” (Native Canadian Centre) in Toronto, Dennis reports being chastised for calling himself “Native”: “You are not Native, you are Anishinaabe!” British Columbian Dennis protests, “I had never heard the word ‘Anishinaabe’ before in my life!”

Each chapter of Peace Pipe Dreams is easy to hear as a comic monologue. Even on a serious subject such as alcoholism, Dennis punctuates factual and statistical information with good-natured bon mot. Statistics show, for example, that Caucasians consume more alcohol than Native people do: “Caucasians, you’re probably wondering why we’re all here today. This is an intervention. . . . [T]his whole time you have been displaying the exact same behaviour you attribute to Indians. Ain’t that a bitch?” Informality and wit, however, do not obscure Dennis’s serious purpose—to emphasize democratic ideals brought centuries ago to the so-called New World, and to insist we live up to them.

Recalling times when North America was relatively “new,” at least to Eurocentric eyes, George Copley’s Traditional History was first published in 1850. Arguably the first tribal history by a Native author, its perceived incoherence and disorganization have generated skepticism about whether it is truly Copley’s, or even any single historian’s writing. This Early Canadian Literature edition contains the complete text of the original publication; it also features an afterword by Shelley Hulan addressing Copway’s contested rhetorical strategies for managing his non-Indigenous audience. Hulan argues for his authorial control over a deliberately “patchwork” text designed to “interrupt” the history he narrates to achieve intended effects: raising audience awareness of how earlier histories had been narrated from a Eurosettler’s perspective that he does not share, and persuading readers that “contradictory” versions of history such as his own merit attention. Hulan argues persuasively for Copway’s complex vision and his sophisticated narrative management of it.

A different kind of complex vision is the subject of Armand Garnet Ruffo’s collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by the paintings of Ojibwe artist, Norval Morrisseau. Ruffo verbally renders the mystical, visual experiences created by his tribal kinsman, whose paintings sustain the worlds the artist dreamed as he sought spiritual knowledge and struggled with alcoholism. In each poem, Ruffo connects an evocative painting with episodes in Morrisseau’s life. Ruffo contrives to enter Morrisseau’s creative space as if on a shamanic journey of his own. He brings back to the reader a keen understanding of the Ojibwe traditions and iconography informing the artist’s work, perceptive interpretations of individual paintings, and an empathetic connection to the painter himself. For example, in a prose poem, “Sacred Bear from Vision, 1959-60” (also the name of the painting), Ruffo elaborates on a powerful incident in Morrisseau’s life. For several days, twelve-year-old Norval, on his first vision quest, is suspended on a scaffold some twenty feet in the air. When the spirits come, he was told, he must keep his eyes closed. Unfortunately, when Bear arrives, young Norval is so frightened that he looks, and consequently he receives only part of Bear’s gift, “the message of everlasting life.” Ruffo and the adult Norval attribute some of the painter’s lifelong suffering to his youthful failure of courage. Ruffo’s own gift to the painter he admired is a compassionate representation of his difficult life and celebrated work in verbal imagery accentuating the “dignity and bravery” of the “Great Ojibway” people, traits conveyed by all four of the volumes here under review.



This review “Gikinoo’amaagoowin” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 122-124.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.