- Robert Stacey (Author), Trevor Herriot (Author), and Dan Ring (Author)
Qu'Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys. Mendel Art Gallery (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Norman Henderson (Author)
Rediscovering the Great Plains: Journey by Dog, Canoe, and Horse. Johns Hopkins University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marilyn Iwama
Life writing takes a turn in Norman Henderson’s Rediscovering the Great Plains, and he claims the biographer’s techniques in his attempt to understand and communicate the “essence of the Plains.” The authors of Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys opt for the high road of constructed realities, yet each story charts a familiar course through “the other” to “self.”
While all of these writers are sold on Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, none waxes as evangelical as Henderson. The Plains are Henderson’s first love. His mission is to understand them better and to influence others to love them more. What brings Henderson to Qu’Appelle is his speculation that understanding will only come through knowledge of a particular “old and native” corner of that “vast sweep of grass from Alberta to Mexico.”
Henderson’s arduous route to understanding Qu’Appelle includes three journeys through the valley: two overland, accompanied first by a dog, then a horse, each pulling a travois, and one by canoe along a portion of the Qu’Appelle River. Henderson prefaces his account of each journey with a chapter that documents the history of comparable travels and his attempts at reconstructing a passable travois and a replacement for his old canoe thwart—the latter a pragmatic alternative to the buffalo skin and willow branch bull boat favoured by the Cree and Saulteaux. These chapters also detail Henderson’s excavations in the archives and his search for suitable animal companions.
Henderson admits that the “Plains” are “not an easy landscape.” Still, on a train ride through the prairie, he is impatient with fellow passengers who choose bed over a night of sightseeing in the dome car. In fact, Henderson’s pastoral grassland is such a utopic imaginary that the partying occupants of a neighbouring campsite seem to be “creatures from entirely different worlds.” Prairie towns are a “fascinating genre . . . too much alike to be of interest as individuals.” Even the cows are “an irritant.” Less biography than elegy, Henderson’s tale is glaringly short on the contemporary social realities of Qu’Appelle. Nonetheless, Rediscovering the Plains is a provocative and often pleasing tale. Evoking the journals of early explorers and animal companion tales, Henderson’s account rollicks along with fine crafting and palpable enthusiasm.
Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys catalogues the process of gathering approximately 300 works of art related to the Qu’Appelle Valley for a 2002 exhibition at Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery. The title is a metaphor “for the way first nations and colonists, both past and present, constructed and experienced nature, spirituality, and culture through the physical reality of the Qu’Appelle.” This first volume offers a collage of art works and two autobio- graphical essays by the show’s curators, Dan Ring and Robert Stacey, as well as a third by Regina naturalist and writer Trevor Harriet. A second catalogue will feature the work of Métis artist Edward Poitras, Canada’s representative to the Venice Biennial of 1995. Poitras’ work encompasses land claims, Qu’Appelle’s Treaty Four, the Lebret residential school, and “the mythology of the valley.”
Ring’s introductory essay describes Qu’Appelle as an “irresistible” relief from the “sameness” of prairie. His personal mythology is a patchwork of “native beliefs, art, the occult and local history” centred in the valley. Ring acknowledges the cultural forces of imperialism and indigenous culture that have shaped Qu’Appelle—a “mix of conflicting memories and allegiance” that still constitutes contemporary Saskatchewan society. He perceives both the catalogue and the exhibition as ways of reproducing this conflicted reality as a foil for colonial imperialism.
As determined as Ring is to avoid romance and nostalgia, his fellow authors never quite manage to escape these colonial symbols. Herriot constructs himself as a cultural sympathizer, harsh on both the Indian agent and the missionary. He is frank on the “paternalist soul of the colonizer” and points readers to other sources for deeper treatment of, for instance, the history of residential schools in the valley. Herriot’s is a democratic approach. He discusses three cultural “phases” of Qu’Appelle, weighing oral tradition and written history equally, while acknowledging the contemporaneity of aboriginal tradition. It seems a difficult posture to maintain for one who, “like everyone else, go[es]down to the Qu’Appelle because it feels good to be there. . . . Nostalgic for a time when we spoke and listened to valleys and rivers. . .” (41).
If Herriot’s essay skirts nostalgia, Stacey’s bathes in it. “Who Calls? A Qu’Appelle Quest” is exactly that: a bildungsroman of the adolescent who achieves maturity through daring encounters with the “geographic enigma” of the “arcadian” Qu’Appelle Valley. It is an engaging tale. Stacey is the grandson of landscape painter and illustrator C.W. Jefferys, possibly the first non-Aboriginal artist to paint the valley. With strong personal ties of my own to Qu’Appelle, I appreciate the (almost) irresistible pull of the valley. Whether by vehicle or on foot, travellers lose themselves to Qu’Appelle, to the thrill of sighting it, just before ping off the edge of the prairie. For Stacey, the magnetism of Qu’Appelle develops into an artistic imperative: for the life of him, Stacey cannot fathom why, for instance, the Regina Five (Ted Godwin, Kenneth Lochhead, Arthur McKay, Douglas Moron, Rob Bloore) and their colleague, Roy Kiyooka, refused to engage with the valley.
The majority of the earliest catalogued works in the exhibition are landscapes, so human figures play a small part. People most often appear in the book’s historical illustrations, in photographs of the bizarre and exploitive “Indian Pageants” of the 1920s and 30s or in Henry Metzger’s and James Henderson’s “Indian” portraits.” Provocative differences exist between these portraits—distinguishable only by varying degree of grimness and costume—and the two of Edmund Morris’s (son of Treaty Four’s Governor William Morris) that are included in the book. Morris’s early twentieth-century representations of Nepahpenais and Piapot impress because they appear only lightly burdened by colonial notions of “Indianness.” Readers will have to wait for a deeper look at this meeting of Qu’Appelle’s colonizer and colonized until publication of Poitras’s work—“the other exhibition.”
- Doubly Gifted by Jack F. Stewart
Books reviewed: Two Jacksons Abroad, 1936 by Naomi Jackson Groves and A. Y. Jackson
- A Distinguished Man by Heather Murray
Books reviewed: Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniells by Sandra Djwa
- Calling For New Readers by Elizabeth Maurer
Books reviewed: Repossessing the World: Reading Memoirs by Contemporary Women by Helen M. Buss and Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson
- Framing Women's History by Lindsey McMaster
Books reviewed: On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 by Adele Perry and Framing Our Past: Canadian Women's History in the Twentieth Century by Sharon Anne Cook, Lorna R. McLean, and Kate O’Rourke
- Knowing Your Albatross by Christoph Irmscher
Books reviewed: Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond by Lawrence Buell and Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology by James McKusick
MLA: Iwama, Marilyn. Knowing Qu'Appelle. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 138 - 140)
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